Arafats invitation to Holocaust Museum arouses ire

Jewish reaction to the flap was decidedly mixed, and certainly emotional. Even after the issue was apparently resolved, the debate continued, mixing two issues — the Holocaust and politics — whose intermingling was once taboo.

And some of the reaction crossed the usual partisan lines. Some of the Palestinian Authority chairman's harshest critics remained steadfastly opposed, saying that a visit to the museum was wrong, while others in fact urged that it happen.

Echoing the view of many in the Jewish community, Hyman Bookbinder, a longtime Jewish activist and a founding member of the museum's council, said, "A serious mistake has now been undone."

In a letter to this week to Miles Lerman, a death camp survivor who chairs the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and who was responsible for initially withdrawing Arafat's invitation, Bookbinder expanded on his views. "Whatever arguments can be made about not opening wide the welcome gates to an Arafat, they are overwhelmed by the central argument that the museum exists because of its potential — demonstrated over and over again — to move even the most skeptical."

But some Jewish officials remained troubled by the motivations underlying the idea of an Arafat visit to the memorial.

"For me, it's an empty gesture," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor. He added that it was not Arafat's idea to visit the memorial to begin with.

"It was recommended to him as part of image building, and I think that's an abuse of the Holocaust," said Foxman, who also sits on the museum's council.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he supported the idea of Arafat visiting the Holocaust memorial, but took issue with the assumption apparently made by the Clinton administration officials who proposed the idea.

"I don't think it should be used as an occasion to prove a point to otherwise skeptical American Jews about Arafat," Hier said Tuesday.

Nevertheless, Hier said Arafat and his deputies are in dire need of an education about the Holocaust — particularly his top deputy, Abu Mazen, who wrote a book in the 1980s denying the Holocaust.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking to reporters at the White House following his meeting with President Clinton on Tuesday, offered no opinion about the museum's decision, but suggested that a visit could prove beneficial to Palestinian Holocaust deniers.

"I would hope that the first thing that would happen is that there would be an immediate change in the unfortunate habit of the controlled Palestinian press to both deny the Holocaust and denigrate it by casting aspersions on Israel as a Nazi state," Netanyahu said.

Others remained less concerned about the Holocaust education of Arafat than about the potential advantages to the peace process.

"I'm much less interested in whether he benefits by it, than whether the cause of peace benefits by it," Bookbinder said.

Similar comments were spoken in a New York Times interview by Richard N. Haass, a Middle East expert in the Reagan and Bush White Houses now at the Brookings Institution.

"To encourage Arafat to do Sadat-like things is important, because gestures count," he said. "And if Arafat can take the high road, it affects what Jews think and makes it more difficult for Netanyahu to act ungenerously."

But Arafat's loudest critics stood firm.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and a child of Holocaust survivors who was born in a displaced persons camp, said the museum's decision "is a violation against the memory of Holocaust victims."

"Should a person who has murdered hundreds of Jews — including Jewish children — and one who continues to praise suicide bombers who have murdered Jews [be] an honored guest in a museum devoted to the memory of Jews who were murdered due to hatred of Jews?"

But such views seem to have lost this round.

When the flap over the invitation became public, two Israeli Holocaust survivors on kibbutzim immediately said they would welcome a visit by Arafat.

Avner Shalev, director of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, said that while he would like to see Arafat visit, official visits from dignitaries were determined by the Foreign Ministry.

However, Shalev said he believed the U.S. museum had made a mistake by becoming embroiled in the question of whether to host Arafat.

"To the best of its abilities," he said, "an organization involved in the documentation of and memorializing the Holocaust should try not to get involved in political matters."

The controversy began when the U.S. Middle East peace process team approached Arafat earlier this month and suggested that he visit the museum. Dennis Ross, the State Department's special Middle East coordinator, and his deputy, Aaron Miller, both sit on the museum's board.

But after Arafat accepted the idea — which was to mark the first time a major Arab leader has visited the national memorial — Lerman withdrew the invitation for Arafat to tour the museum as an official guest.

Instead, the museum informed him that he would have to visit as an individual, without the special security measures and protocol usually afforded world leaders — a decision Arafat angrily rejected.

But after being faced with what sources described as a virtual rebellion on the museum's governing board and opposition from administration officials, the museum reversed itself in a public and apologetic fashion.

"When I make a mistake, I'm big enough to admit I made a mistake," Lerman told the Washington Post. "The buck stops at my desk. I am the chairman.

"Ideas were given to me that by extending a full-status visit to Arafat we will divide the constituency of the museum" and that half of the Jewish community "will be blessing me and half will be cursing me," he said.

"The more I think about it the more I think the visit of Arafat to this museum will serve a good purpose for peace."

Museum officials emphasized that Arafat would not be received as a "head of state" — a formality that generally involves laying a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance — but as a VIP, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and others suggested.